First off- I can’t speak French (“but I let my funky music do the talking”… wow, amazing how a Girls Aloud song I barely know can pop into your head…anyway) I studied German at school, and I know some Albanian from my time in Kosovo, but French- I don’t understand a word! My wife speaks quite good French, and asks her family questions in French (mainly “how are you” I think, like I said, I don’t understand). I owe Google Translate for the title of this blog- and it’s probably wrong anyway.
Playing in the background as Year 13 revise the Post Stalin Thaw is the ‘swearing in’ of new French President Francois Hollande. It’s quite a grand affair. I visited Paris for the first time with my wife and in-laws back in October 2010, and watching the cannons fire at the Place des Invalides is quite the sight. There’s the French army in full uniform, the tricolour flying in the breeze and the national anthem, La Marseillaise, played as ‘Francois’ inspected the troops. He greeted many diplomats as he walked through the site of Napoleon’s tomb, and what with all the double kisses, it took quite a while! But apparently this is low-key for the French!
The first Socialist President for 17 years, Hollande has risen to power on a wave of anti-austerity, “anti-centralisation of European power in Germany” and anti-Sarkozy. He faces a difficult task, but his statement that there is another way to repair the economy, besides the austerity measures all but agreed by the European Union, have rattled other leaders in Europe. Hollande is likeable– he is intelligent, displays patience and consistency, but there is no doubt that he was a man in the right place, at the right time. His socialist party’s need for unity led to a comprehensive campaign against an opponent so unpopular that to lose to Sarkozy would have been more embarrassing than playing “We are the Champions” at Manchester United’s player of the year dinner on Monday night.
But French people hope that after a difficult year of austerity and terror attacks, and a difficult reign of Nicolas “the incompetent” Sarkozy, Hollande may signal a new start for French people. His ‘inaugaration’ speech highlighted the confidence he has in turning things around- he called on history by stating that they “are a great nation. Throughout its history, France has overcome the challenges it faced”. He summed up their problems as “huge debt, weak growth, reduced competitiveness, and a Europe that is struggling to emerge from a crisis”, and gave a rather vague aim of bringing “France back to justice, open up a new way in Europe, contribute to world peace and preserve the planet”.
But what kind of difference can he make? History tells us that a new leader has the potential to make a big difference to a country’s direction. Beyond the obvious examples of William the Conqueror, Hitler or Lenin, we see other examples of great change. Tony Blair’s arrival as British Prime Minister in 1997 marked a new period in British history that was markedly different from the early 1990s. Clement Atlee’s post war Labour government brought us a welfare state that, for all it’s problems, is an iconic part of British society. Ronald Reagan’s different approach to Cold War politics ultimately played a large role in bringing an end to the conflict, as did the USSR’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev (my future doppelganger!)
However, there have been many false dawns too. Khrushchev’s Destalinisation saw a period in Soviet history that, although perhaps less brutal, was just as dominating. Barack Obama told the US people that “yes, we can”- but so far he has been unable. David Cameron too, has struggled to make his mark following his election in 2010. There are circumstances behind these ‘false dawns’, economic uncertainties, the role of other countries and conflicts, but the fact remains that the change that was promised in those examples simply did not come.
President Hollande faces many challenges in France, trying to revive a country that feels it is not living up to its great history, whilst managing the struggling Euro system and maintaining positive relations with its neighbours, chiefly Germany of whom its relationship has been the bedrock of Europe post WWII. the BBC’s European Editor,Gavin Hewitt, says that German people are suspicious of Hollande, believing he is bidding to “reclaim French leadership in Europe”.
La Marseillaise tells us that “the day of glory has arrived”, but for Hollande and the new socialist government, time will tell.